Author: Hu, Helen
Date published: April 12, 2012
Although more minority students are studying abroad than in the past, educators recently shared ways to improve the numbers, which they say remain too small.
The overwhelming majority of students taking advantage of these programs are White and female, many from relatively well-off families who study the humanities.
School administrators who attended the 8th annual conference of the Forum on Education Abroad last month said they would like to see more men, students of color, people who are the first in their families to go to college, the disabled, gays and lesbians, and math, science and engineering students taking advantage of these programs.
In 2009-10, 63.5 percent of U.S. students studying abroad were female, according to the Institute of International Education. Whites were 78.7 percent of the students; Asians and Pacific Islanders, 7.9 percent; Hispanic, 6.4 percent; Black, 4.7 percent; multi-racial, 1.9 percent; and American Indian or Alaska native, 0.5 percent.
Of the 270,604 studying abroad that year, 57,638, or about 21 percent, were ethnic minorities. That compares with 38,000, or 17 percent, in 2005-6.
Heather Barclay Hamir, director of study abroad at the University of Texas at Austin, said she knows she has work to do.
The schools enrollment is now majority minority, reflecting the states shift in population. The study-abroad program is "gaining, but behind," she said.
Schools realize that as they prepare their students for an increasingly globalized society, studying abroad can be vital, and underrepresented students must have the chance to benefit from this enriching experience, educators say.
As the nation's population becomes more diverse, so must study abroad programs, some say.
"If the only faces countries are seeing are Caucasian female liberal arts types, that's not a very diverse image of who the American college student is," said Carol Jambor-Smith, associate vice president of IES Abroad, a nonprofit consortium that offers study abroad programs.
"Also, if you have diversity in the classroom, it gives a diversity of opinions," she said. "Everyone benefits from that."
The conference featured sessions on topics ranging from academic standards to how to keep students healthy and safe, even in risky situations such as the uprising last year in Egypt.
But reflecting the heightened interest in diversity, discussions also were held on ways to recruit underrepresented groups of students and expand the study-abroad programs of community colleges, which serve many such students.
Many students, especially men, see college as simply a way to get a job and aren't getting the message that international experience can make them more marketable, administrators say. They assume it's too costly, they wouldn't find a course that fits in with their major, or that they wouldn't qualify.
For some students, enrolling in college, moving away from home and perhaps living in a different region of the country are already big challenges. Going to a foreign country seems overwhelming and impractical, educators said. Some students hold down jobs and help support their families.
Receiving credit for studying abroad can be an issue. Minority students often go to "traditional" countries with faculty-led programs because that's not a problem, experts say.
Community college students must check whether they can use study-abroad programs for credit as they seek to transfer to four-year institutions. Engineering and other non-humanities fields are often too formally structured for study abroad.
Students with disabilities are sometimes discouraged from going abroad, but can do better than they think, according to Franz Knupfer, project coordinator for Mobility International USA. The disabled populations are bigger in some countries and Americans can learn from them, he said.
Administrators said they have had success by getting students who have studied abroad to recruit others. Professors and mentors can be particularly persuasive, they say.
To elicit interest, the administrators also have moved their offices to areas on campus with more foot traffic, dropped in on student events, and partnered with career centers and programs helping firstgeneration students.
They have explained the programs to wary parents and met with high school students to get them thinking about potential opportunities. There's no single good approach, they say.
As for cost, study- abro ad administrators said they've caught faculty members telling students it's too expensive for them. But financial aid can be used to study abroad, and an array of scholarships and grants are available, they stress.
Neelah Ali, a junior at the University of Colorado Boulder, said she won two scholarships and took out a S5,000 loan to spend seven weeks in Havana, Cuba.
"But it was more than a good investment for a life-changing opportunity," she said.
Juan Sánchez, a business major at the University of Colorado Denver who participated in a sports-entertainment program in Great Britain, said scholarships helped pay for his air ticket and other expenses but he still took out a SlO, 000 loan.
His time abroad gave him confidence. "I'm ready to go to Brazil, China," he said.
Esmeralda Rodríguez, a student at Colorado State University who went to Barcelona, said she was inspired by the stories of friends who had studied abroad.
It was tough to explain to her parents why she wanted to go abroad - and why she yearns to go again.
"Didn't you already go to Spain?" they asked.